carl saunders

Carl Saunders


A veteran of big bands and Las Vegas shows, Carl Saunders has performed with some of the biggest names in jazz and show business: Kenton, Maynard, Horace Silver, Ella, Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and more. Performing last April at the Chandler Jazz Festival and Jazz in the Hills, Carl joined me for lunch to talk about show business and playing musically.


Get a Mouthpiece that Works
(mp3, 2 MB)

Tropicana Train Wreck
(mp3, 5 MB)


JK: You spent many years playing shows in Las Vegas. Why don't you talk a little about some of the requirements of show playing?

CS: Well, you have to be proficient at reading and have some experience, but other than that it's just the usual type of a gig. You have to have the reading down and have the experience and confidence to be able to pull it off. It's just like anything else: it's confidence, experience and ability.

There are all different types of gigs in the music business. One of them is a show, and one of them is a casual where you've got music to read—playing "In the Mood" or dance stuff, so you're still reading. So I don't think the show gigs in Vegas are too much different than any other gig, but there's really not much of that going on anymore. The music business is more like studio work in the big cities, L.A. or New York, and that's pretty high-pressure, the recording stuff. If you mess up, they start over again, so your mistakes affect everybody.

JK: For kids that have never played a gig, could you talk through a typical date? How's it work when you get called to do a show? How much rehearsal time and so forth?

CS: There were two types of shows in Vegas—now you need to realize that we're talking about something that doesn't exist anymore—the book shows, like at the Tropicana, went for like fifteen or twenty years with the same music, occasionally they would change the personnel . So when you came in as a new player there would be no rehearsal. When somebody left the gig, you'd come in a sit behind the guy and you'd watch him play the show, look over his shoulder in the pit, watch the show a couple of times, maybe take the book home and look it over, and then come play the show.

The star policy shows—a star would come in for two or three weeks—as soon as they left, the next act would come in and then we'd have to come in the afternoon and then rehearse for the next act. We'd usually rehearse one day in the afternoon, run the show down, and then do the show at night.

JK: Did they pretty much keep the show the same through the whole run?

CS: Yeah, they might throw in a tune now and then, but usually it was all the same. You'd work two weeks with Robert Goulet, then Jerry Vale would come in, and if you were on that hotel band, you'd rehearse the new show in the afternoon and then play it that night.

JK: So you'd be a trumpeter pretty much assigned to a particular hotel, rather than skipping around from one venue to another depending on the show?

CS: Yeah, you'd play the same hotel. The star policy hotels would be bringing in different people all the time. The book show bands would be playing the same show forever. You know, some guys would be playing the same music for years, two shows a night six nights a week.

JK: (laughs) How do you do that without going crazy?

Carl Saunders

CS: Well, it's a job. When I'd do those I'd tell myself, "It's better than eight hours at the telephone company." I'm playing my instrument, I'm keeping my chops up, I'm reading and constantly playing. You couldn't really practice, because we didn't have enough chops to practice. The shows were so hard that you needed to rest during the day. That's why I've never been much of a practicer, myself.

JK: So there wasn't a lot of woodshedding, you had to save yourself for the gig.

CS: Two shows a night, 8:00 and midnight, and the show couldn't go past two hours, so the show was usually an hour and a half or an hour and forty-five minutes. We'd hit at 8:00, be done by 9:30 or a quarter to 10:00, then we'd go home or do whatever and then come back and do the midnight show until 1:30 or a quarter to 2:00. Then we'd go out and play in the clubs.

JK: I remember reading the liner notes on a Buddy Rich album, "Mercy, Mercy," that said that Buddy's band was backing up Tony Bennett at Caesars Palace, and after the second show, some celebrities and VIPs were invited to listen while the band did the recording live in the showroom. I can't imagine having the kind of chops to play two shows and then play Buddy's lead book for a recording, but Al Porcino did it and sounded great.

CS: Well, you gotta realize that when you're playing those shows, two a night, six nights a week, so we developed some real strong chops. Sometimes we'd play in the afternoon, but nobody would want to because you wanted to save yourself for the evening. So I played golf during the day.

But after the shows, we'd go play jazz at The Tender Trap and different jazz clubs around town, sometimes until 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning. And then we'd come out, the sun's up and it's 110 degrees, I'm still in my gig suit, looking around for my sunglasses, after playing all night and then blowing afterward. Sometimes we'd play at my house, I had a set of drums and a piano in my front room.

JK: What are some of the things you practiced growing up? At some point, you had to have spent a lot of time woodshedding to get to the level you're at now. I mean, that doesn't happen by accident.

CS: Well, I was kind of a natural. I never took lessons and I never practiced, but I played a lot. When I was on the road, I'd play the gig, then after the gig I'd find a cab driver or someone and ask where the jazz joints were and go and blow. That's how I worked on my playing just playing a lot not necessarily practicing.

In school, all the guys in the band were practicing and taking private lessons and stuff, and I was out playing basketball, and then I'd get back into band and I was still better than they were because I had the concept in my head. I had a good ear and music came easy and naturally for me. So a good ear should be a prerequisite for anybody that goes into the art of music, in my estimation, but there are a lot of unnatural people in the music business.

That's why bands aren't swinging. The other reason is that the leader has too many of his friends on the band.

So I think playing by ear is a natural thing; there's no teaching that. You can't teach the natural. All you can teach is the mechanical, the mechanics. It's like [football player] Marcus Allen, when he goes around that corner he's got that little swivel of the hip and they miss him tackling and they can't get him. You don't teach that. You can coach it. You can tell somebody how to do it, but they can't do it unless they have that natural thing. It's the same thing with music.

JK: You've got to have some intuitive ability.

CS: Exactly, and that's what musicians should have, but they all don't. Now there are the classical guys, they're kind of stiff and mechanical, and you need those types of mechanical people in the symphonies. There are some naturals in there, too, but a lot of mechanical people are in there. They can't play jazz or swing or anything, but they play the symphony stuff great; those people do play dynamics and play tastefully.

JK: Do you ever play with orchestras, pops concerts or anything?

Carl Saunders

CS: No, but I did an album called Eclecticism, with twenty-five strings, three French horns, and I did a Chopin piece. In fact, I have recorded a Chopin piece on two of my albums. On the Out of the Blue album I did "The Minute Waltz," which is Chopin. The name of that is "Valse, Opus 64, No. 1." The second album I did, I found this other Chopin tune in a thing called The Classical Fake Book. I liked it so wrote it out for trumpet and used to play it on gigs and stuff, and I ended up recording it with strings on the second album. So on my first two albums I had a Chopin piece. Now it turns out that this second one that I liked is called "Valse, Opus 64, No. 2." It's like right after "The Minute Waltz." Evidently, he got through writing that and the other was the next thing he wrote. So I did that on the Eclecticism album which has strings and French horns, and I did a lot of five-trumpet stuff.

I've always said that I'm strictly "illegit," because I never really studied all the legit trumpet; I have developed my own technique and apply it mainly to jazz phrasing and soloing.

JK: Do you do quite a bit of touring?

CS: I do a little bit of it.

JK: Any horror stories from the road?

CS: A friend of mine used to play on Ray Charles' band. Ray used to have half of the bus furnished as his bedroom, so the rest of the band would always be crammed together up front. But Ray never rode on the bus, so it was just the band riding around in half a bus. Horrible.

They played this resort in Florida—all the bands played there—and every time someone would come in, the resort would pay for the rooms for the band; that was their policy for years. So Ray's band gets there and Ray tells the road manager to tell the hotel to charge the band for their rooms, because Ray always makes his band pay for their rooms on the road. He didn't want them to get used to not paying for their rooms, so he made them pay for them at this place where the rooms were free! That shows you where Ray was at.

JK: Do you do clinics in schools?

CS: Yeah. I've got this one thing that I tell the kids, as far as trumpet goes, but not too many people agree with my concepts. Most of the professionals, they don't agree with me at all. But my concept is to use the least amount of air to get the job done to its fullest.

It's just like golf. Everyone is trying to kill the ball, and if you try to kill it, you're results aren't too good. But as soon as you slow your tempo up and put a sweet swing on it, the ball just jumps off the club. The concept is to get a good result with the least amount of effort. It's the same thing with the trumpet. I use that analogy. I ask kids if they're golfers, because I've been a golf junky all my life.

So play the trumpet easy. You know, they say, "Let the club do the work?" I say, "Let the horn do the work." Just feed it as much air as it needs, which is less than most people think. People are always saying, "More air, support, more velocity, more power!" Pretty soon, everyone's playing too loud and their flexibility suffers because of this.

And I talk about this to the pros, the top players in L.A. They're warming up and they're over-blowing, they're blowing too hard. They're playing too loud! Calm down, for crying out loud! (laughs) They think that playing the trumpet is an athletic event. The trumpet is not a weapon of Mass Intonation.

JK: That similar to a lot of what Bud Brisbois used to say. I'd take a lesson with him and he'd be sitting there with his legs crossed, and he could still peel the paint off the wall with double Cs and beyond, but all with a very relaxed approach.

CS: He was fantastic, phenomenal. He'd play high notes clean. It wasn't like raping and pillaging, like everyone else. It was "bing"—surgical. That's what we're supposed to do, once we learn how to play our instruments, it's time to play music. That's what it's all about. People are more into their instruments than they are into the music.

Carl Saunders

JK: Speaking on that note, are you an equipment junkie at all?

CS: No. Sometimes I'll give a lesson and the kid will always ask, "How can I get more endurance, more range?" It's not, "How can I play more beautiful?" I'd say 85% of the time, it's as simple as getting a mouthpiece that works. Most people will just jam a 7C in there when they start—some teachers start out kids on a 3C—and a lot of them are still playing on the same mouthpiece when I see them. Those are good mouthpieces for section playing and classical or symphonies, but they're not going to get the results they're looking for if they are trying to play lead in a jazz band or a demanding show or gig.

They'll say, "When I get up around high C, it's really difficult and I get real tired, especially when I try to play Ds or Es. I'm straining real hard. My friend can play 'em, how come I can't play 'em. How do I do that?" And they expect me to say, "Well, you firm this up here and get this here and more air and force this out and get your teeth like this and your air stream like this and hold your position like this and practice this exercise so many hours and then you'll be able to play the high G." But it's not that. What it is is getting a mouthpiece that enables you to play those notes; usually a shallower mouthpiece will work better for them. That's as simple as it is. Of course there is an exception to every rule but finding the right mouthpiece that will enable you to play the type of gigs you have chosen to do is a good idea.

I've been playing a 10½ C for jazz and kind of a pea-shooter mouthpiece for lead, but now Marcinkowicz made me a mouthpiece that's working pretty good on lead. I've got an old Benge [trumpet] that I bought used in 1968 that I've been playing. My flugelhorn is an Olds that I bought new in 1964, it's still in my case, and it's old and funky but it's still good. There are a couple of companies at the moment threatening to build me a horn but since I play two mouthpieces it's not easy to find a horn that will do two widely different ways of playing, jazz and lead. I hope they can because my old Benge is getting a little long in the tooth.

—April 2007

Artist Info





Don Fagerquist. Freddie Hubbard. Kenny Dorham. Old Dizzy (40s)

to top